Talking to experts.
Sustainability is a complex issue. Many aspects play a role in how and where sustainability is successfully implemented. Experts from different fields talk about where the BMW Group stands currently: What are the challenges we face? What new solutions are there?
We’re not idealists.
Energy Manager at BMW Group Plant Spartanburg.
When BMW Plant Spartanburg's Cleveland Beaufort sources alternative energy to supply his facility with heat and electricity, the numbers have to add up. That much is clear. But the bottom line is not the only thing that makes the plant a sustainable success story: Beaufort is an energy manager who doesn't wait for finished solutions – he is always on the lookout for environmentally-friendly alternatives.
"We’re not idealists."
When BMW Plant Spartanburg's Cleveland Beaufort sources alternative energy to supply his facility with heat and electricity, the numbers have to add up. That much is clear. But the bottom line is not the only thing that makes the plant a green success story: Beaufort is an energy manager who doesn't wait for finished solutions – he is always on the lookout for environmentally-friendly alternatives.
Spartanburg lies at the heart of the state of South Carolina – a small city with a population of just over 37,000, two airports, a university and a shopping mall: perfectly normal and unremarkable, if it weren't for the unique BMW plant located west of the city. This is where the Bavarian automaker produces all its successful X Series models. The plant is one of the BMW Group's most sustainable facilities – despite a steady increase in production since the early 90s, with more than 300,000 BMW X3, X4, X5 and X6 rolling off the assembly line here in 2014 alone. The X family is not just popular in the United States. 70 per cent of the vehicles built here are exported to more than 140 countries worldwide – making the Spartanburg plant the largest automobile exporter in the US. The location has also become a showcase project for sustainability due to a large extent to the plant's own landfill – which is extremely valuable from an environmental perspective. But the landfill was just the beginning: Today, hydrogen-powered forklift trucks are also used in auto production. But the plant's energy manager, Cleveland Beaufort, isn't finished yet: His goal is to obtain all electricity and heat needed for automobile production in Spartanburg from natural resources.
The Spartanburg plant has become one of the BMW Group's showcase facilities for sustainability. How did that happen?
Cleveland Beaufort: The factory was still relatively new when someone came and told us about a nearby landfill that produced waste gases. Of course, this was completely new territory for us, so "we respectfully declined." At that point, we already knew we wanted to use natural gas, not waste gas. In truth, we had no idea how to use landfill gas. But we learned more about it and finally agreed to the proposal – although we still weren't prepared to invest a single cent.
Doesn't sound like you were convinced...
We had already invested millions in a combined heat and power system four years earlier when we built the plant. Plus, the landfill was almost 15 kilometres away, so we would need a pipeline to deliver the methane generated from waste decomposition.
How did you resolve that?
We got lucky: The energy supplier Ameresco agreed to build and run the pipeline for us. In return, BMW promised to use all energy generated by the landfill for a period of 20 years. Back then, natural energy was much cheaper than it is today. In the beginning, we only had to invest a relatively small amount in the project – between 200,000 and 300,000 US dollars – and we recovered that within just two weeks of operation. We knew right away it was a great deal!
And you had tapped into a previously unused source of energy...
... that also benefitted the environment. We have been using methane gas since 2002 now and it still supplies 50 per cent of our total energy needs for electricity and hot water. As well as saving us five million dollars a year in energy costs, it also reduces our annual carbon dioxide emissions by 92,000 tons – which is roughly the energy consumption of 15,000 American households.
When you're searching for resource-efficient alternatives, it's worth looking at unconventional ideas.
This success story must have required some pioneering work from you and your co-workers in Spartanburg?
Using a landfill to generate energy was certainly an unconventional idea. But it brought us a lot closer to our goal of running our entire production exclusively on renewable energies. We learned that taking new and different paths works. So we now use a wide range of different measures to save energy and increase the percentage of renewables used in production.
That sounds promising. The BMW Group will invest a billion US dollars in the site by 2016 to increase capacity by another 50 per cent. Does that mean you'll need an even higher output of renewable energies?
We will meet that challenge together within the BMW Group. The company has proved on many occasions in the past that sustainability and business success are not mutually exclusive. As the Spartanburg plant has grown in recent years, we have continued to optimise the landfill: In 2008, in fact, we invested another 12 million dollars to expand capacity and boost efficiency. Unfortunately, we won't be able to go any farther down this route, because the quantity of waste we are allocated by the landfill is fixed.
400 solar cells power BMW Museum and three charging stations.
So there is nothing more you can get out of that. What about a new landfill?
That's not likely: Too much resistance among the general population. It's the nimby effect: Not in my backyard. People just don't want waste at the back of their house. Fortunately, we will be able to use the old landfill for another ten years. But, of course, we are already looking at new sources of energy and thinking in all possible directions – for instance, there are two wastewater works belonging to us that could definitely be a source of renewable energy.
What about solar energy and wind power?
We're working on it. In 2012, we installed 400 solar cells, which now supply our 24,000-square-foot Museum, as well as three charging stations for electric vehicles. But think about how many solar cells we'd need for the whole plant! We're not idealists – it just wouldn't be worth our while. Solar and wind energy are still very expensive in South Carolina and subject to strict regulations. Other states, like California, are much farther than we are – when it comes to tax breaks, too. Solar and wind energy will probably only become attractive for us in South Carolina in five years or so.
Emission-free forklift trucks – unthinkable just a few years ago.
Methane factory in Spartanburg
So you believe time is on your side?
It is! Just look at all the technical innovations we've made here in Spartanburg in the last few years. Even our forklift fleet contributes to sustainable production now. Our 500 or so vehicles no longer use batteries: They run on hydrogen and move around our 350,000-square-metre production facility with no emissions at all. We have replaced the site's battery-charging stations with a hydrogen storage system. This has significantly reduced the plant's power consumption and means we no longer need to dispose of leaded and acidic batteries.
That would have been unthinkable just a few years ago...
That's exactly what I mean. Technical possibilities are developing fast. Our forklift trucks are now being used at the BMW production site in Leipzig as well. We talk and share ideas – worldwide – so that we can meet the company's goal of 100 per cent renewable electricity over the long term: We are working on that together right now. We'll see: Perhaps one day, Spartanburg will use more solar and wind power, or biomass or other natural sources, such as methane gas from cows.
So, you'd consider using organic cows if there were a strong business case?
(laughing) Our core business is to develop and build cars – that is not going to change any time soon. An external provider would have to take care of the cows – like they do with the landfill. But demand for renewable energy has increased significantly, so I'm not worried. One day, we might actually find someone to do that here in South Carolina.
100 per cent of production waste becomes waste for recycling.
Which production processes actually use the most energy?
Definitely the paint shop: That is why, back in 2006, we switched our painting processes to recycled methane gas and combined the steps for base and top coats. This reduced energy consumption by 30 per cent. We haven't used water since we closed our water cycles and introduced waterless processes with dry separation.
Spartanburg is not California and environmental protection is relatively new to the people of South Carolina. Aren't your green ideas a bit much for your associates?
We explain what we are doing here to our associates and they are fully aware what we can achieve with our landfill and hydrogen storage container. Did you notice the recycling bins dotted around the halls? That was part of our goal to completely recycle all production waste from assembly by 2012. And we did it! Nothing goes to the landfill anymore – and that is something our associates are extremely proud of, because they all pulled together to achieve it. You can imagine how difficult it can be in a plant like this that uses so many different materials! Our environmental team did a really great job. We held team competitions and much more. There's even a BMW recycling muppet show!
Sounds like there's a strong team spirit...
Absolutely. Our associates are undergoing a cultural change I've seen in myself. I used to throw everything in the trash. Not anymore. Now, I sort glass, paper and plastic, with a separate container for each. I know a lot of our associates feel the same way. We provide containers for private recycling in the parking garages. Things get especially busy around Christmas. I believe the team has really understood that recycling is not a one-man show – and that it's worth making daring changes.
Update: December 2014